Essentialism is a concept designed by Greg McKeown. Feel free to read his book or get the message through his podcast if you want it straight from him rather than through my filters and my thoughts. The “concept” isn’t strange or new. The point is to focus on what matters. Deliberately. Again with the values and goals – and then going for THAT and not everything else.
The same concept comes from others and could be seen as thousands of years old, but I’m really fond of the word itself, which is why I’m using his term rather than any other. Focus is essential if you want to get somewhere, but it doesn’t seem to come naturally to everyone. Spreading your resources too thin, trying to do everything, or doing things you honestly don’t want to do (even though you feel you “got to because of x”) is rarely worthwhile in the long run. I try to implement the concept and do what’s valuable, necessary and what gives me something rather than drains me. I do my best to keep to what’s important and remove the rest the best I can. Do you?
Life is short.
Resources are limited.
You know there’s time.
You rarely know how much, though.
How much do you dare to waste?
What’s essential to life?
Where do you want to spend your resources?
The point is to focus on what really matters.
A great point is made at the beginning of Greg’s book.
His wife is in the hospital to give birth to their daughter. It’s really time.
But… There’s also this really important business meeting.
“Instinctively I knew what to do. It was clearly a time to be there for my wife and newborn child.
So when asked whether I planned to attend the meeting, I said with all the conviction I could muster…
He got there and the client he met with thought “what the heck are you doing here?”
His wife got hurt.
He got hurt.
Everything… just turned into a mess.
It’s a short story where I guess similar things and worse happen around the world all the time. Saying yes to everything without being sure about what’s important is a certain way to never get to what’s essential. Once you really get a good grip on your values and goals – and focus there – you’re often on your way. Spending time with yourself to get to know yourself and through that knowing what you’re fond of and what’s valuable is vital to spend the resources you’ve got wisely. Don’t waste those on bullshit spontaneously.
If you waste time on things that don’t matter, you’ll get busy but not productive. You won’t reach what matters, but you’ll feel like you’re going there and going for it. Are you, though? Being busy isn’t hard, and it’s not useful in and of itself. You could be busy infinitely, but your time and energy will not last forever. Neither will your life. It’s pretty short, with some perspective. Highly limited. Getting busy and saying yes to everything is a path to burnout and being really, really tired. With some luck, you’ll be convenient and pleasant for people in the meantime. You please others. You’re helpful and useful. Is it really worth it?
You do have a choice. Use it to focus on what’s valuable to you.
To make it more tangible to some, we could use a parallel to spending money. It’s similar, but you use another currency than time. Most of us have finite resources. If you spend it on things that don’t matter, that could be more or less fun, but when you’re standing there hungry at the end of the month with nothing to eat, you won’t be laughing. The same goes for energy and the time that is your life. If you spend sums that matter on things that don’t matter – you’re likely trading time for money, and then you waste that money. You’re throwing time away. Is it worth it?
Will to live.
They are all resources and currencies of some sort.
How would you like to spend them?
Spending – or not spending time on your relationships that matter is the question.
You’ve got a choice when it’s your life.
Just because people ask things of you doesn’t mean you have to do those.
Finding an opportunity to do something doesn’t mean you have to do it.
Do you suffer from the fear of missing out?
Get rid of it! Get away from it! Get a good grip of what’s important and tend to that. Doing new things, drifting away sometimes, and meeting new people could be fun, but if you want to be well and do well, you need to know what’s important.
If that’s completely impossible…
If you’re just floating along or saying yes at all times…
Could it be that you’re genuinely feeling helpless?
Perhaps you don’t feel as if you’ve got a choice?
Learned helplessness could be one reason to neglect essentialism.
It’s a great reason to feel as if you “don’t really have a choice”. You do all of those things you’ve GOT TO do, and then you’re out of time. But we always have a choice. Things just have different consequences.
Consequence analysis. Have you made one?
Haven’t you thought about the price? Unless you’re aware of the price, I get that you just do what’s pleasant short term and take the easy way out. Do your consequence analysis to avoid doing what’s not essential. Think about it before it’s too late. Analyzing something well enough could be worth the time because you might find it completely useless. Maybe you don’t have to spend any time or energy doing it?
Performing, perfection, and living up to unreasonable demands could be a great reason to please everyone but you long-term.
Does it feel as if “there are so many demands!!! I’ve GOT TO do all of these things!”
Saying no is an absolutely crucial essential thing. Saying no is practically the foundation and vital for you to consider doing what’s essential because you can’t please everyone.
Who and what would you like to prioritize?
Do you need to practice saying no?
Does it feel as if you need to be perfect in other people’s eyes, and that’s why you can’t say no?
Should you really say yes to everything and regret it for hours, days or weeks?
Or should you say no, barely, but perhaps slightly regret it for minutes, to have nothing but relief?
Saying yes is saying yes to that one thing.
Saying yes is saying no to everything else.
Saying no is saying yes to what matters and is essential for you.
Hell yes! … Or no.
A while back, I read the short but lovely book “Anything you want” by Derek Sivers. Again. That time I realized that it would change how I ought to work. It wasn’t the first time I read it, but they say it’s not uncommon for teachers to show up when the students are ready for the lesson. It’s not rare for books to fit differently in different parts of life either. The first time it didn’t affect me. The second, it made quite the change.
In short, the significant difference I got when reading the book was that I got pickier with people afterward – for everyone’s sake. When I love what I do, I do it far better, and people get better results. When I love to work with you, you’ll love to work with me and make far more progress. We’ll get along better, and we’ll have far more fun. Better for everyone. When I worked with other things earlier, I accepted practically everyone as a customer. Wide hits plenty of people, which ought to be a good thing… right? Not if you don’t love it.
Page two in the book starts with something that really resonates with me. Not sure if it’s mostly because it’s something I already realized and try to live up to – or because I try to teach people the same thing. I’ll start by quoting it:
“Most people don’t know why they’re doing what they’re doing.
They imitate others, go with the flow, and follow paths without making their own.
They spend decades in pursuit of something that someone convinced them they should want,
without realizing that it won’t make them happy.
Don’t be on your deathbed someday,
having squandered your one chance at life,
full of regret because you pursued little distractions instead of big dreams.
You need to know your personal philosophy of what makes you happy and what’s worth doing.”
The book is about Derek’s journey trying to sell his CD, figuring out a for-1997-fancy-programming-finesse. When doing that, he turned to friends to help them sell theirs along the way and then stumbled upon creating a business. It grew and grew and ended up being a hassle with 85 employees. But the delicate part of it is what he learned along the way. Not the growth. He didn’t desire that. The values. Which also seems to resonate with me quite well.
Back to quoting! Some of the ones he shares are:
“Business is (…) about making dreams come true for others and for yourself.”
“Making a company is a great way to improve the world while improving yourself.”
“Never do anything just for the money.”
“Don’t pursue business just for your own gain. Only answer the calls for help.”
“Success comes from persistently improving and inventing, not from persistently promoting what’s not working.”
“Your business plan is moot. You don’t know what people really want until you start doing it.”
“You can’t please everyone, so proudly exclude people.”
“The real point of doing anything is to be happy, so do only what makes you happy.”
Several of them are kind of… soft and human. I like them that way. Humans, improvement, and soft stuff come before pure capital. People and helping them are obviously what’s essential to Derek.
The book of ~80 pages takes an hour or so and contains a bunch of small lessons. The key takeaway is more or less “do what’s pleasant and enjoyed by people – including you”.
There’s a chapter named “No “yes.” Either “Hell yeah!” or “no”.” This means “don’t do the meh-stuff, do what’s really enjoyable and rewarding”. Kind of synonymous with essentialism, isn’t it? He doesn’t call it the same, but the concept and how you do it. Do what truly matters.
When I read that, I thought, “What’s really rewarding if excluding people would be okay?” In my case, it allowed me to take in and help the people who are truly interested in getting help and improving.
Before I worked with the more eclectic approach to tend to tired, depressed, and long-term pain people, I did more manual stuff and got frustrated by people who didn’t care to do what was necessary to get better. I met people who wanted me to magically cure their whatever with a solution for something that won’t solve that problem.
Asking for help because you don’t know how to do something…
… And then explaining how the problem is solved…
Is kind of confusing to the one you’re asking for help.
While people “asked for help” like that and avoided listening to why things weren’t a good idea or why I didn’t want to apply the solution, I became increasingly frustrated.
The endless frustration wasn’t worth it.
It was like talking to a wall.
So I did my best to read, learn and apply.
Then I chose to change.
I picked my Hell yeah!
Today I prefer to say, “I can’t do that, but feel free to keep looking elsewhere.”
Sometimes I refer to people who don’t mind applying solutions I don’t like because I don’t mind if people pay to get what they want – but I don’t want to give them something I don’t believe in.
If you want a quick fix to something where there’s no such thing, I won’t try. If you want to get rid of pain from something quite complex – but you want it gone in an hour, rather than to solve the main problem, I’m not that guy anymore.
That’s comfortable. To some degree, it could sound as if I’m trying to be morally superior… But I don’t necessarily think that’s it. I just do what I believe is right. I do what’s important to me. I ACT according to my values, just as I try to get my clients to. I don’t value people’s money enough to take it from them and give them something that won’t help.
This approach comes at a cost. I rather avoid working with people than giving them what they want. Crazy, according to some. But the point is that I’m doing my best to avoid using something that won’t help. I work with fewer people, and those I work with will get what I genuinely think works.
Because that’s essential to me. When you ask someone – or even pay someone – to get help, you ought to get what they genuinely think will help you. I’ve worked with and gotten help from more expensive coaches than me, and I was baffled by the coaching I got. Not impressed. But learning what’s not a good idea still counts as learning, I guess.
Today, as I’m writing this, I spent time with a client between 8.30 am and 5 pm. That’s with ONE client, on a Saturday.
That’s what she needed, and that’s what’s being offered when it’s necessary. Because that feels essential to me. That feels important and necessary to me.
What’s essential and what’s not is entirely subjective.
Doing what’s essential requires reflection – and then dedication and discipline.
Keeping to what’s essential is likely completely necessary to create a valuable life worth living. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. Essential isn’t at all synonymous with easy. Often the contrary.
Some people want help with something and a specific solution to that problem – but they are open to discussing the matter. If that’s the case, I don’t mind having that discussion. If they’re searching for a solution to the problem rather than looking for someone who’s doing their specific solution that won’t solve it, I don’t mind chatting for a while to see if I can be that person. If people want to mess with why they’re in trouble, I might very well do that for them, depending on what trouble they’re in, of course.
Doing that can take several hours and generate nothing for me. But it’s still essential. Helping people is essential. To me.
Sometimes, I talk to people for hours, try to understand what troubles them, and then refer them elsewhere or refer to my book or whatever might help them on their way.
Doing what’s essential isn’t easy.
It’s about living your values.
It’s about doing what’s truly important to you.
That could very well be incredibly hard.
Have you heard of Warren Buffet? He’s one of the examples Greg mentions in the book, and he more or less uses the hell yeah approach with investing. He picks the one percent of the investments that might be a good idea. The one percent that seems to be the best idea. Choosing a lovely investment that would be 8/10 on a scale ought to be good. But not good enough. A strategy that seems to have worked out quite well…
The Way of the Essentialist
Get a new perspective on saying no.
No isn’t an insult, so if someone takes it as one, that’s not necessarily on you. It’s a response to the request they come with. It’s not a no to the person (though, crassly, it could be). Do it nicely, explain to make the person understand why and it might even become a positive thing. It’s more likely that people respect your time if you do. You’re more likely to get respect from people when you respect yourself enough to value yourself, your time, and what matters to you.
The other side of the coin would be to take a break before saying YES; if so, just for a few seconds to make your consequence analysis.
What are you saying yes to?
What’s the price?
Some gain insight and perspective when they journal. They notice the patterns and what happens. They notice where things go wrong and perhaps even why. I’ve seen a lot of insight among those I help as they use journals to write things down to get a more objective view of things and then reflect from there.
Some get incredible quality of life through exercise. I won’t cover everything in length here. Again, there’s quite a long chapter in the book about it, but in short: cardio could do wonders.
Some love winning their day early. Some have the same routine day in and day out. Some wake up incredibly early. Some don’t. There might be a checklist and something challenging. Perhaps there’s some reading, journaling, drinks of a specific type, or exercise.
Some are incredibly fond of their evening rituals. To round up the day, finish with a smile and calm down. Perhaps to prepare for the next day or to reflect on how things worked out. Routines vary. This could be a great time to learn from the last few hours and become a better person, but it could also be a time to prepare to become even better tomorrow.
Get habits you love and do what works for you. “Essentialism” is subjective.
Protect what’s essential.
Protect your time by scheduling it. “I’m busy here because I’m doing something important. I don’t want to be disturbed”.
Schedule time to reflect:
“What should I do?
“What shouldn’t I do?”
“What do I want?”
Playing is probably a good thing to consider essential. All work and no play make Jack a dull boy. It also seems to increase brain plasticity and make you think in new ways. Get a hobby, play games, begin practicing a sport, and be playful with grown-up stuff! That’s an essential part of life as an adult.
Sleep. This is a no-brainer. Being sloppy with or prioritizing sleep too poorly will affect a bunch of aspects such as judgment, awareness, alertness, and your will to live, do and act. That’s just the start. It’s very rarely worth it to neglect sleep.
Reading and learning are, for most of us, essential to get forward in life. There’s always room for improvement or repetition of something you feel you ought to know. Plenty of people repeatedly return to the same old books to learn new things with every read. Are you one of us?
Reading is funny because few things illustrate how little control we actively assert over our lives as well as reading does.
Some just purchase books without ever getting to read them.
Some have piles beside their bed or at their desk.
“I wish I had time to read more.“
“I’ll squeeze in a few minutes of reading before bed.”
“When the kids are older, I’ll get back into the habit.”
“My secret is audiobooks on 2x speed.”
A couple of thousand years ago, Seneca talked about how people mistakenly prioritize a million trivial responsibilities and then give the leftovers to philosophy and reflection. Books seem to get into that category for a lot of us. It’s as if everything else is more important, and only when we’re alone or have some unexpected quiet time or have literally nothing else to do, do we finally sit down to read.
Is that reasonable and balanced?
You read on your phone all day – tweets, Facebook posts, Instagram captions, YouTube subtitles, blog posts, or articles. There are emails all day, and most of them are far from important.
At what point during this tsunami of garbage, do you say to yourself, “I don’t have time for another stupid meeting, I have to get through this volume of history.”?
If you want to read, you have to make time for it.
If you want to get better as a person, you have to make time for reflection, philosophy, and finding what’s essential to you.
Take that time and make it non-negotiable. Prioritize it. Give the leftovers to the errands, or see what errands you can avoid. Gladly pay delivery fees if it means a few more minutes with something truly important. Cancel meetings and things you “ought to do” and enjoy the audiobook on regular speed. Put your phone in a drawer and sit down with your journal.
Make the time. De Gaulle did. Napoleon did. Marcus did. You can too.
Only once you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all,
to stop saying yes to everyone,
can you make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter.
– Greg Mckeown
People are effective because they say “no”,
because they say “this isn’t for me.”
– Peter Drucker
Back to the top.
Will to live.
Spending – or not spending time on your relationships that matter.
What’s important to you?
Choose wisely, you don’t get to focus on everything.